We have our dime-store polymaths: Sartre’s Self-Taught Man, Cliff Clavin, Jeopardy‘s Ken Jennings, and now making his bid for overbroad erudition is Esquire senior editor A.J. Jacobs. His “expensive college education”? Gone “in a haze.” A prior stint at EW‘s left his head full of “pop culture jetsam” (the name of *NSync’s choreographer, celebs who’ve had boob jobs). So he hunkers down to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from “a-ak” to “Zwyeic” and become “the smartest person in the world,” a journey chronicled here entry-style.
Early he’s one of us feeling is undermined by Jacobs’s eagerness to confess his shortcomings (Beckett who?) and consistently ham-fisted punchlines (e.g., “You can’t get a much bigger transformation than that, unless . . . Mother Teresa went through a phase as a loan shark”). Like other factophiles, he shows off his Brit bits with little discretion (compulsion is the autodidact’s curse), in what seems a bid to break everybody’s goodwill. Humanizing plotstuff comes via his struggles to live up to lawyer-author dad and impregnate his wife, which might further stereotypes about smart dudes’ less cerebral powers. Still, the enormity of the task is impressive: “33,000 pages, 65,000 articles . . . thirty-two volumes . . . 44 million words.” There are moments of genuine wonder, like when he discovers that a “kilogram is now defined as the weight of a hunk of metal sitting in this building outside of Paris.” Did you know the Taiping Rebellion “took an estimated 20,000,000 lives”? He’s “barely even heard” of it. Corn is out as he contemplates the meaning of his ignorance and, movingly, turns on the EB for the first time: “Shouldn’t it say, ‘took an infuckingsane 20 million lives’?” Some tired wit and a predictable “everything is connected” conclusion don’t seriously lame his de facto project, this book. Maybe Lou MacNeice got to the point quicker (“World is crazier and more of it than we think”), but Jacobs gives an idea of what that world looks like.